Harvard’s SLIPS technology solves sticky situations

Image: Wyss Institute
Image: Wyss Institute

A surprising number of the world’s problems arise because of stuff sticking to other stuff: Ice on airplane wings, barnacles growing on undersea power lines, blood sticking to blood bags.

A new company launched out of Harvard University hopes they’ve found a solution. Their creation? A suite of ultra-slippery surfaces that repel blood, bacteria, dust, water, ice, cement, and more.

The technology is aptly called SLIPS — short for “slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces.” It was developed in the lab of Harvard professor Joanna Aizenberg, who is co-founder of the newly formed SLIPS Technologies and remains on the scientific advisory board.

The approach involves coating a naturally sticky surface — wood, metal, plastic — with a solid layer that traps a liquid layer that makes it permanently wet.

Pitcher plants do this really well. The walls of their “pitchers” trap a very thin layer of water resulting in a deadly slip-and-slide for visiting insects. It’s not just them, your eyeballs also have a thin layer of water on the outside, which is how they stay moist. The inner layer of your gut traps a layer of mucus, keeping the insides lubricated so food can slide through.

Aizenberg has made a career of deftly mimicking nature’s best tricks to solve real-world people problems. “We really learn a lot from how nature does it,” she says. According to Aizenberg, the SLIPS suite is able to mimic all three approaches.

With an initial $3 million in Series A funding, SLIPS Technologies will start manufacturing polyurethane, a very common plastic, with the super-slippery coatings built in. SLIPS Technology will do this in partnership with BASF Corporation, a New Jersey chemical company.

The goal is to target industrial applications first, and then move on to more tightly regulated industries, like healthcare.

LiquiGlide, another Cambridge company, is also bringing similar technology to the market. It has origins at Kripa Varanasi’s lab at MIT.

Like SLIPS, LiquiGlide’s coatings are really two layers — a very thin liquid layer clinging onto a precisely chosen solid layer. LiquiGlide has made the choice to target the consumer space — shampoos, ketchup, yogurt, using materials that can be found in a grocery store aisle and are safe to eat. Medical applications and coatings for more tightly regulated industries are further along.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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